Why So Serious?

Win over millennials online by being goofy and making fun of yourself
Photograph: Shutterstock

CHICAGO — Hi there, Generation X and baby boomers. It’s me, a millennial, and I want to have a frank conversation with you about fake news.

No, not actual fake news that has real-world consequences. I’m talking about fun fake news, such as The Onion and The Hard Times, both of which write ridiculous headlines for the sake of a laugh.

If you have visited these websites recently, you might have noticed plenty of stories about gas stations. The Onion has been whipping up convenience-store headlines such as “Taquitos Finally Hatch After Days Under Heat Lamp” and “Man Lowers Carbon Footprint By Bringing Reusable Bags Every Time He Buys Gas.”

Meanwhile, The Hard Times generally pumps out music-themed parody stories, and it sometimes involves c-stores. For instance, The Hard Times recently published “Touring Band Splitting Gas Costs Evenly Amongst Members’ Parents” and “Punk Treats Himself to Food From the Nice Gas Station.”

Rest assured, these headlines are a good sign for c-stores trying to attract millennial customers because it's reminding millennials about c-stores in a fun way. The headlines also offer great insights into millennial humor.

The most important lesson here is to avoid taking yourself and your brand too seriously. In case you’re not aware, the internet is a brutal place. Your brand will be ridiculed for nothing. It stinks, but that’s how it is. However, the ability to take that truth in stride will impress millennials online. For instance, you might not be too pleased with the headline equating taquitos to lizard eggs, but you have to keep in mind that the joke isn’t being made at your expense.

Millennials often mix something mundane with something absurd when it comes to internet humor. No one is saying that taquitos are literally lizard eggs. It’s just funny that both reptile terrariums and roller grills use heat lamps. Make no mistake, the headline purposefully doesn’t portray roller grill food in the best light. Even so, accepting a little good-natured needling like this can go a long way toward building goodwill among millennials toward your brand.

Kum & Go excels at using online insults as an opportunity to engage with customers. Just look at the tweet pinned to the top of its Twitter page. Scroll down, and you'll find a conversation where one Twitter user claimed Kum & Go is "An Iowa convenience store chain that has no self-awareness." Another user responded, "Or maybe too much?" Kum & Go makes no apologies about its name and responded with, "Or maybe just enough?"

If you’re still uncomfortable with others making fun of you, the best course of action is to make fun of yourself first. The other three headlines mentioned above are all great examples of self-deprecating humor, but the “Splitting Gas Costs” headline is my personal favorite.

Why is this relevant to the future of c-stores? I often hear leaders in the industry bemoan the death of brand loyalty among millennials and Gen Z customers. I don’t think brand loyalty is impossible among these generations—try telling me Android phones are better than Apple phones and see what happens.

Admittedly, the path to brand loyalty is more difficult and confusing today than it has ever been. But making efforts to relate to your millennial customers now could pay off later, even if that means making fun of a brand you are proud of and want to protect.

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